WASHINGTON -- In what is being called the largest operation against an employer so far under Donald Trump’s presidency, and with more promised, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) descended on nearly 100 7-Eleven convenience stores before dawn Jan. 10 to open surprise employment audits and interview workers.
Special agents of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) served notices of inspection (NOIs, also known as I-9 audit notices) to 98 7-Eleven franchise stores across the country and conducted interviews with the stores’ employees and managers, according to a statement from ICE provided to CSP Daily News. NOIs are a tool ICE uses to ensure that businesses are operating with employees who have proper work authorization.
The audits could lead to criminal charges or fines over the stores’ hiring practices.
ICE served the notices in 17 states—California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington—as well as Washington, D.C.
Twenty-one individuals that authorities suspected of being in the United States illegally were administratively arrested and given notices to appear in immigration court. Under the current administration, all workers encountered during these investigations who are unauthorized to remain in the United States are subject to administrative arrest and removal from the country, ICE said.
7-Eleven Inc. acknowledged the actions in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
“We are aware of [ICE] actions taken at certain franchise locations,” 7-Eleven said. “7-Eleven franchisees are independent business owners and are solely responsible for their employees including deciding who to hire and verifying their eligibility to work in the United States. This means that all store associates in a franchised store are employees of the franchisee and not 7-Eleven Inc.
"As part of the 7-Eleven franchise agreement, 7-Eleven requires all franchise business owners to comply with all federal, state and local employment laws. This obligation requires 7-Eleven franchisees to verify work eligibility in the U.S. for all of their prospective employees prior to hiring. 7-Eleven takes compliance with immigration laws seriously and has terminated the franchise agreements of franchisees convicted of violating these laws.”
In 2013, HSI conducted an investigation into various 7-Eleven franchises that resulted in the arrest of nine franchise owners and managers for conspiring to commit wire fraud, stealing identities and concealing and harboring undocumented immigrants employed at their stores. All but one, who remained a fugitive until his arrest in November 2017, pleaded guilty and were ordered to pay more than $2.6 million in restitution for back wages stolen from workers.
This new round of notices is intended as a follow-up to ensure proper steps are taken toward more responsible hiring and employment practices, ICE said.
Neither Irving, Texas-based 7-Eleven Inc. nor its parent company, Tokyo-based Seven & i Holding Co. Ltd., was charged in that case. 7-Eleven has more than 8,300 c-stores in the United States.
“Today's actions send a strong message to U.S. businesses that hire and employ an illegal workforce: ICE will enforce the law, and if you are found to be breaking the law, you will be held accountable,” said Thomas D. Homan, ICE deputy director and senior official performing the duties of the director. “Businesses that hire illegal workers are a pull factor for illegal immigration and we are working hard to remove this magnet. ICE will continue its efforts to protect jobs for American workers by eliminating unfair competitive advantages for companies that exploit illegal immigration.”
Officials told the Associated Press that the operation is the largest against an employer so far under the Trump administration. The action opens a new front in Trump’s aggressive expansion of immigration enforcement, which has brought a 40% increase in deportation arrests and furthered plans to spend billions of dollars on a border wall with Mexico, the news agency said. Some administration officials have been pressing for a tougher stance on employers.
Derek Benner, a top official at ICE, told AP that Wednesday’s operation was “the first of many” and “a harbinger of what’s to come” for employers. He said there would be more employment audits and investigations, though there is no numerical goal.
“This is what we’re gearing up for this year and what you’re going to see more and more of is these large-scale compliance inspections, just for starters. From there, we will look at whether these cases warrant an administrative posture or criminal investigation,” said Benner, acting head of ICE’s HSI, which oversees cases against employers.
“It’s not going to be limited to large companies or any particular industry, big medium and small,” he said. “It’s going to be inclusive of everything that we see out there.”
Although agents arrested 21 people suspected of being in the country illegally during the sweep, the action was aimed squarely at management, said the report. Illegal hiring is rarely prosecuted, said AP, partly because investigations are time-consuming and convictions are difficult to achieve because employers can claim they were duped by fraudulent documents or intermediaries. Administrative fines are discounted by some as a business cost.
George W. Bush’s administration aggressively pursued criminal investigations against employers in its final years with dramatic pre-dawn shows of force and large numbers of worker arrests. Barack Obama’s administration more than doubled employer audits to more than 3,100 a year in 2013, shunning Bush’s flashier approach. John Sandweg, an acting ICE director under Obama, said significant fines instilled fear in employers and draining resources from other enforcement priorities.